Spat between Bayern Munich and Its Chinese Fans: Everyone is Losing

Four weeks ago, when Bayern Munich historically won the Champions League in Lisbon after winning all 11 matches, its Chinese fans were still riled by the club’s endeavors to collaborate with two members of Teens in Times, a Chinese boy band. The supporters accused the club of “begging” the group for its public backing, which was demeaning to the club’s genuine old-school fans.

Bayern Munich currently has over 4.2 million followers on Weibo, which is one of the most popular football clubs in China. After beating PSG 1-0 and winning a treble of European and domestic titles this season, Bayern’s profile was expected to continue to rise and the club’s name was trending on Weibo. However, compared to other fields, football is primarily popular within a small group mainly composed of males between the age of 25 and 45. The purchasing power of this group is usually limited and the monetization process usually costs more time and effort.

Under this condition, many European football clubs started their journey to invite celebrities from other fields to expand their influence outside football and thereby boost revenues. Bayern is not an exception and has taken a similar approach in the Chinese market before. Bayern Munich once invited pianist Lang Lang to perform in Bundesliga and pop singer Zhou Bichang to visit the club. As one of the top pop singers with over 31 million followers on Weibo, Zhou’s post on her Weibo after visiting the club received over 14k likes and 12k comments, while the official account of Bayern Munich just received its 4 millionth follower a few weeks ago and most posts have fewer than 100 comments.

Among all collaborations between the football club and Chinese entertainers, the most successful one is Lu Han and Manchester United. Lu Han, an ex-EXO member, has accumulated a large group of loyal fans who are willing to support anything he mentions. Despite this, his fans have little overlap with football followers in general. Under his football-related posts, we can always see comments, “Although I cannot understand what you are saying, I will just support whatever you are doing.” Those fans might not watch any football game, but their interactions on social media and spending on club-related products bring unimaginable traffic and financial income to the club, which is exactly what the club is looking for.

It might be easy to conclude the success between Lu Han and the English giant is from Lu’s influence as a generation’s idol; however, the key here is Lu Han himself has been a die-hand fan of Manchester United for a long time. Before he became an idol, his social media was filled with Manchester United and his passion for the Reds is well documented by his “Ten years a fan, Lifelong a Red Devil!” post, which brought him a Guinness World Record for the most comments on a Weibo post. Therefore, although Lu Han, as a K-pop star, usually has a low level of recognition among football followers, his long-term collaboration with the club and ‘Red Devil Messenger’ identity still receive positive feedback from the Chinese United fan community. Furthermore, his efforts to initiate “the first football class” project and donate football equipment to schools in rural Chinese areas are bringing deeper respect from even the most picky and exclusive football fans. 

However, it is not that easy to copy Manchester United’s success since not every club has a popular entertainer as its iron fan. Therefore, under most conditions, clubs usually invite celebrities on an ad hoc backing. Generally, those collaborations do not raise too many controversies because supporters understand that the club needs traffic to boost its recognition and reputation. However, Bayern irritated its fans this time. Similar to many other idol groups, fans of Teens in Times are divided into two groups: one that supports all members in the band and one that supports one or more specific members. 

When Bayern followers opened the hashtag on Weibo and hoped to read information regarding the team’s preparation for the Champions League, they found nothing but fans’ messages as “Bayern Munich is Yan’s dream”, “Bayern Munich is only for He ”, or “Bayern Munich belongs to both of them.” The other issue is that although two boys claimed they have been supporting Bayern for years and there were posts back to four years ago to show they have started to follow games since then, those two were found to have confused Thomas Muller with Robert Lewandowsky in a TV show and once expressed their inclination towards Argentina, which is one of the most widely recognized sworn enemies of German football. Additionally, no one can deny that Teens in Times has had some committed fans based on their social media, but its name is still unfamiliar to most people. Comparatively, Bayern Munich, as a traditional European football powerhouse, has had a stronger and better-recognized brand in the Chinese market. Those football fans did not understand why the club they respected would show desperation over multiple messages just for endorsement from someone they had never heard of before.

Angry Bayern fans soon poured into the comments of FC Bayern’s official weibo, expressing their anger towards the PR department, and requiring the club to explain what was happening and apologize for their unprofessionalism. To their surprise, what they received was not an apology from the club, but a letter instead, in which the newly crowned European champions accused supporters of hurling abuse on Bayern’s Chinese social media page. “We came to China to have closer communication with Bayern fans and fan clubs. However, distorting facts and hurling abuse at the club’s official platform should not happen among Bayern’s big family.”

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Bayern’s response fueled the anger of supporters even more. “Are you blaming me?” “You have the cheek to blame the fans? I am writing a letter of complaint to Bayern’s headquarters.” Last week, Hupu launched a series of online events for Bayern fans, including inviting Bayern’s Asia CEO Rouven Kasper to answer questions from supporters. “I want a response from you regarding the letter posted on Weibo. I have been a Bayern fan for over 20 years and I was feeling hurt.” Responding to this comment, Rouven apologized for its unclear statement that might hurt some fans’ feelings but underscored that it was not their purpose and Bayern would improve its work in social media and online shopping fields. Comments below this response illustrate that people are still unsatisfied but it seems that they are not expecting more. After all, it is an apology for misbehavior and a promise of improvement.

It seems that the farce has ended but every side involved is losing. Two of the idols deleted their endorsement video since comments were full of irritated Bayern fans; the club is still receiving criticism from fans online and their approach for endorsements from other entertainers might become harder after the controversy; the club’s fans feel betrayed and ignored. What’s more, a lot of problems are still left unresolved. Chinese sports culture is still at the initial stages, which means new user growth, monetized conversion, and sustainable business models are huge challenges for the whole industry, especially after COVID-19 hit the economy. Almost everyone sees the potential of the Chinese market, but trying to explore different solutions to break through the bottleneck remain a significant challenge.